Homage to Barbara Cartland

Jenny Diski

I could have left well alone; read the new autobiography and a novel or two and got stuck in. I’m not a great believer in the principle that talking to people is the best way of finding out who they really are. I’m not sure I’m even a great believer in the notion that there is a who-they-really-are to be found out. So why I petitioned for an interview with Barbara Cartland still baffles me, except perhaps that I enjoy improbability and (occasionally) being in situations that are entirely beyond my ken.

In preparation for our meeting, I was sent a package, the contents of which spilled out on the kitchen table, making an otherwise ordinary morning sparkle. It had proved impossible to find any of Dame Barbara’s novels in local bookshops or even W.H. Smith, though I was lent a copy of Lovers in Lisbon by Portuguese friends on condition that I cherished it. There were two novels in the package, A Nightingale Sang and The Disgraceful Duke, as well as a small pink booklet on the cover of which is a drawing of Dame Barbara looking very like Zsa Zsa Gabor in her youth, resting on a globe. The booklet enumerates all her doings and works. After listing her 600 novels, there is a heading: ‘Her Other Wonderful Books’, with sub-headings such as Philosophy, Sociology and Historical. Finally, and most movingly, there was a typescript bound in pink ribbon tied with a bow. The handwritten stick-on label reads: ‘How I want to be Remembered’. After elaborating on the 16 numbered life achievements of which she is most proud, she writes: ‘I am very thrilled by what I have achieved in my life and if nothing else, I would like to say a prayer of gratitude because I have helped a great number of people, both physically and spiritually, to find love.’

We spoke on the phone, and she explained why I had to sign an indemnity form before meeting her. ‘You see, my dear, people come and see me and then they go away and write that I wear too much mascara and that I am ugly.’ My heartstrings twanged, as they would faced with any 93-year-old who has been ill-used by the grown-ups. People can be so unkind. We negotiated and came to a compromise about the indemnity form: she could not have a veto over anything I wrote, but she could reject anything I quoted directly from our meeting. After reading the typescript Dame Barbara did, in fact, delete several passages and expanded all spoken contractions.

Camfield Place is a large gloomy house which was Elizabethan until Beatrix Potter’s grandfather (‘rich and without much taste’) demolished it to build himself a proper mansion. It’s dark and shadowy inside, so far removed from the world outside that you feel alarmed at stepping across the threshold and leaving the light behind. The dimness is relieved only by a scattering of gleaming rococo occasional tables, all cherubs and curlicues, but which look at first glance as if Jackson Pollock has been let loose with someone’s upchucked lunch and pots of gold paint. The room in which she received me was the green the Nile is supposed to be, but almost certainly isn’t. Not, alas, pink, though the dozen or so urns of flowers – two held spiritedly aloft by a pair of life-sized gilded satyrs – were symphonies of pink carnations, lilies and the like. But in common with the threadbare, taped-up carpets, the blooms had seen better days, and sagged with the effort of living up to the complexity of their arrangement.

Dame Barbara, on the other hand, was remarkably fresh and vigorous, in a multicoloured silk tea-frock, tripping along on her sandals and smiling quite a lot. She has a very nice smile, and hair like cumulus clouds, billowing white, tending upwards, and, being rather sparse, transparent enough to see the light from the window behind her scintillate through the wisps. The false eyelashes are a mistake because, being heavy, they tend to make her lids droop, concealing a pair of vivid green eyes, alert and interested, which you’d like to see more of. Still, we all need protection from the stranger’s glance. Me, I leave my spectacles on when I’m not sure of the company I’m keeping.

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[*] Robson, 197 pp., £14.95, 28 July, 0 86051 924 4.

[†] Robson, 311 pp., £9.99, 28 July, 086051 925 2.